Award-winning singer-songwriter LINDA SUSSMAN, whose songs cover universal themes like love and heartbreak and cries for social justice, is based in New York. Her music blurs the lines between folk and blues. Sussman’s guitar playing, which combines fingerpicking with a touch of slide, and strong rhythm supporting her vocals; her music has been played on radio stations around the world.
Following the 2021 release of “These Walls,” which peaked at #1 on the RMR’s Top 50 Alternative Folk Album Chart for the week ending 4/3/21 and peaked at #5 on the RMR’s Best in 2021 Alt-Folk Album Chart, Sussman released “Shake It Loose Today” in July 2022, her fourth album in five years. Sussman has performed her music in a variety of settings over the years, but she typically travels alone. Lead guitarist Mike Nugent, bassist and mixing engineer Kevin Kelly (The Workhoppe East), percussionist Richie Guerrero, pianist Mark Mancini, drummer Shawn Murray, and a few other musicians can be heard on her albums.
In the last five years, award-winning alt-folk & blues singer-songwriter Linda Sussman from New York has released four albums, the latest of which is “Shake It Loose Today.” The album’s nine upbeat songs include “Chain of Hope,” a folk-rock anthem for Ukraine, the swampy blues title track, which is about finding one’s footing after hitting rock bottom, several love ballads, including one that challenges the realities of aging, as well as the bluesy and upbeat “Honey We Gonna Fly.” Every song offers the listener something new. The album debuted at #1 on the weekly Top 50 Alternative Album Chart of the Roots Music Report in the US, and “Honey We Gonna Fly” was at #1 on the Blues and Roots Radio online/Toronto chart. Check out the album and the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
LINDA SUSSMAN: I was born and raised in the NYC metro area and music has been part of my life as far back as I can remember. There was always music playing at home. As a schoolkid, I sang with some top-notch choruses in the city, took accordion and then clarinet lessons before ditching lessons altogether and shifting to the guitar. I fronted a folk-rock band in college, played the coffeehouse circuit and some festivals as part of a trio post-college (that’s when I started writing my own songs) and landed a steady gig as a singer-songwriter (solo) at Kenny’s Castaways down on Bleecker Street in the heart of NYC’s West Village. But it wasn’t until many years later that I found my way to recording and occasionally playing with some of the most respected musicians in the NY metro area.
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
LINDA SUSSMAN: I am self-taught on the guitar. Everything I know, from fingerpicking to playing in open tunings, I learned mostly by watching others and experimenting on my own. I started playing when I was around 11 or 12 and some friends had also picked up the guitar at the time, so whatever we had learned, we simply shared with each other. There wasn’t an instructor standing over to correct us, which, on the one hand, gave me much more room to experiment but, on the other hand, didn’t give me any foundation in music theory.
On the vocal front, I studied with a professional coach for about a year or so. That gave me a bunch of tools to use and ensured that I wasn’t wrecking my voice. I’m very glad for those sessions.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences?
LINDA SUSSMAN: Hands down it was Joni Mitchell who had the biggest influence on me as both a singer and songwriter. I was struck by her soaring vocals and found her songwriting to be sheer genius. I covered many of her songs along the way, and have her to thank for getting me started with playing in open tunings. Second to Joni Mitchell would be Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs—they were among the best songwriters writing about the world around them and writing songs for social justice.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
LINDA SUSSMAN: My sound has been referred to as both silky and crisp, though mostly unique (I’ve taken that to be a compliment!), while my songs have been called evocative. My style crosses and often blends genres, from contemporary folk, alternative-folk, folk-rock to blues. I’ve got a strong voice, a strong guitar style (lots of fingerpicking), with a bit of slide. The songs that I write touch on universal topics such love, heartache, personal triumphs, social justice, as well as the more lighthearted just for fun. On my commercial recordings, I’m typically joined by one or more of my loyal studio musicians (all from the NY metro area): Mike Nugent (lead electric/classical/dobro), Kevin Kelly (bass), Mark Mancini (piano), Richie Guerrero (percussion), Shawn Murray (drums).
5. How would you describe your development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style, which is known as ALT-FOLK & BLUES?
For years I wrote and played straight folk — lots of fingerpicking, basic chord structures, topped by strong and soaring vocals. But over time, I needed more…more in the way of wanting to broaden my sound and to keep things interesting for myself. I honestly can’t explain how things changed and I crossed over into blues, but it just felt like a natural progression to me. It’s funny, I often refer to my style as “folk-blues,” but then there have been people who take issue with that and tell me it’s simply straight blues or Delta blues or whatever.
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and confront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative, and entertainment?
Much of my music has been called “anthems for our times,” both from audience members and radio hosts. I have always written songs as commentary on social injustices and political affairs and feel that, as a songwriter, I bear some responsibility to speak out against injustices. But I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as that being all that I do. On my latest album (SHAKE IT LOOSE TODAY, released in mid-2022), I chose to book-end the nine tracks with political songs: The first track, “Chain of Hope,” was written for refugees and is a thanks to people who work tirelessly to help them. The last track, “Dream Big,” points to the inequities in our society and is a call to continue to work to close that gap. But the remaining seven tracks on the album cover a whole range of topics, from love and ballads to folk-rock fun to blues angst.
7. Could you describe your creative processes? How do you usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head?
Every song takes its own journey. I’ve noticed that the songs I write for social justice usually start with the lyrics first, whereas for everything else, it’s always music first. It’s usually a guitar riff that gets stuck in my head and then the music drives the lyrics. I don’t really know how it happens, but music by itself conjures up emotions which then spill over into lyrics. It’s still magical to me! Perhaps the most magical is when a strong hook becomes an earworm and songs become crowd favorites perhaps for that very reason. Some examples are crowd favorites such as “Layer Me Up,” “A Little Bit of Heaven” and, more recently, “Déjà Vu” and “Honey We Gonna Fly.”
I’m usually working on a handful of songs simultaneously—though there are pieces of songs on scraps of paper in all parts of my house and voice memos on my phone—but eventually one will rise up above all the rest and gets my complete attention. It follows me everywhere until I deem it complete. That process can take anywhere from a week to a month to the better part of a year. But once it takes hold, it’s just about all I think about throughout my days. Perhaps it would be easier if I were to collaborate with another musician, but so far it’s been a process that I’ve done solo.
8. What has been your approach to recording and releasing music?
LINDA SUSSMAN: I’ve released four full-length albums in the past five years, plus a few singles, including my latest single “A Power You’ll Never Know” in late-2022, which I wrote for women’s rights and reproductive freedom and in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe. I mostly still release full albums (and put a lot of thought into the track order), but these days I’m really rethinking that, given how most people today consume music, thanks to streaming.
On the recording front, the pandemic got me to set up a home studio (I’m forever grateful to my mixing engineer for talking me through everything I needed to record from home) and all tracks on my last two albums and my “Power…” single were recorded separately from everyone’s home studio. I’d set the arrangement and record my tracks first (guitar and vocals) and then my backing musicians would layer on from there. I miss recording in an official studio and having the interplay of ideas and creating more organically, but I found that I was actually freer to experiment with my sound by recording without being watched by others. A music colleague suggested that now I need to take all that home-recording experience back into the commercial studio…wise words, for sure!
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
LINDA SUSSMAN: I’m only now starting to talk about this, but I’ve dealt with psoriatic arthritis for most of my adult years — it’s an inflammatory type of arthritis, similar to rheumatoid, and affects my hands during flares, making it quite challenging (and painful) to play. That led to a full 10-year hiatus from all things music, back around 2006-2016, while I was also caretaking for aging parents who needed a lot of attention. The two together took me out of the music scene for a full decade, but once a musician, always a musician, and I eventually found my way back. The pull was too great to ignore. I re-emerged in 2016 and decided I would go as “all in” as possible and I haven’t stopped since!
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
LINDA SUSSMAN: There are actually two things that I am honestly most proud of:
1. It’s been great to see my two latest albums — THESE WALLS (released in 2021) and SHAKE IT LOOSE TODAY (released in 2022) — reach #1 on the Roots Music Report’s weekly Top 50 Alternative Folk Album Chart shortly after each was released. Seeing my albums on that chart, let alone topping that chart, has been really thrilling!
2. On the performance front, I’d always wanted to play The Bitter End, the iconic NYC venue where many of the folk greats got their start. So after re-emerging from my 10-year hiatus and having just recorded my first album with backing musicians (EVERY ROAD, released in 2019), I actually landed that gig by playing two songs (solo) during one of their exhausting, hours-long open mics. That was a really good day!
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